Chicago River Habitat Restoration: Floating Garden Islands Update


Two summers ago, we unveiled our vision for Chicago River Kayak Park (Plus!), a collaboration with The Naru Project that would spark a recreational revolution on a neglected portion of the Chicago River. We also proposed several other amenities that would create a full featured, mussel-inspired, park along the river, including a performance stage and a floating pool barge (since we can’t swim in the river just yet), and easier inroads for kayakers to get up close and personal with vegetation and wildlife. Chicago River Kayak Park was even featured in the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s 50th anniversary celebration, where they assigned 50 wards to come up with 50 ideas to better the city. 

Plants growing on the river sans soil? Welcome to river-ponics 101! Some of the plants pictured: tomatoes, squash, kale, cabbage and native grasses.

Today, we look at the floating island treatment wetlands that were installed by The Naru Project as a way to better support wildlife along the river. The idea came about after Master’s student and co-founder of Urban Rivers Joshua Yellin found that fish populations were elevated by a statistically significant amount compared to docks beneath a biohaven floating island installed in the river (courtesy of Floating Island International). The Naru Project wanted to implant the The North Branch Canal with a series of floating gardens that would strengthen the populations of local wildlife. Today, the islands are thriving habitats for local fish and waterfowl.

We stopped in for an update and to our delight we found a thriving family of American Coot ducks that made a home on one of the maturing gardens. Read on for more updates, as well as our part in river conservation!

The Chicago River is an incredible resource, and as a city, we haven’t always treated it with care. In 2011, it was listed as one of America’s most endangered rivers. Some people swim in their civic streams, but not much here, where it’s discouraged to immerse one’s body in water from the Chicago River. Besides making way for barges and whatnot, our combined sewer system can spell trouble for a clean river. When treatment plants can’t handle all of the water from a heavy rainstorm, the excess flows into the river in an unfortunate process called Combined Sewer Overflow. Without getting too into gruesome detail, that means raw, untreated sewage waste ends up in the river after a heavy storm. What’s more, this outflow leads into the massive Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and Chicago was targeted as the largest contributor. With the effects of Climate Change on track to increase precipitation length and volume, it’s prudent to focus on ways to handle the water volume we have, and ensure that it’s not toxic for humans and wildlife.

Among all the disruptions and pollutants (including plastic bottles galore), it’s no wonder the local ecosystem has taken a hit. By caring about the river through some of the suggestions we provide at the end of this post, we can make it a place that is safer to recreate in, cleaner to fish in (hey maybe we’ll be able to eat one of those fish someday!), and sparklier to show off to our tourists that visit the city each summer. And if you’re passionate about being a great host to wildlife, there’s ample opportunity for that too by cleaning up the river and making it a more habitable habitat.

The floating gardens have a special interaction with aquatic life—they are a modified version of aquaponics (aquaculture + hydroponics), which has been referred to as “river-ponics.” For the uninitiated, aquaponics is a symbiotic system used to support both edible fish and edible plants. The fish waste fertilizes the plants, and the plants filter the water for the fish. Requiring little in the way of fertilizer, fish medicine and other inputs, aquaponics grows plants that do not derive nutrients from soil, but from the water they grow in. Because of the cleaning properties of the plants, an aquaponics system can function in a relatively small space; in fact, its hyper efficient use of space is part of its appeal when thinking about feeding our planet sustainably. This has interesting implications for fresh, sustainable produce in areas such as food desserts, or far from farms, farmer’s markets or affordable produce. (P.S. interested in hooking up an aquaponics system in your own home? Look no further.)

The floating garden islands provide much-needed room to species trying to establish themselves on the river scene, and of course, the plants clean up the river while they provide crucial shelter and cover. Urban Rivers points out that this project, if successful, could set a precedent for other urban rivers, and could inspire and educate future students about the wildlife that is returning to their own backyards. Some of the plants growing there right now? Tomatoes, squash, kale and cabbage. Native grasses and plants attract pollinators: milkweed, for instance, attracts butterflies and Monarch pupae will only consume milkweed. Butterflies play a crucial role in the health of an ecosystem, serving as prey for local birds and mice (hopefully not rats), and pollinating local plants. The very life-sustaining food that we eat depends on these delicate pollinators, and heavy industry and the demolishing of biodiverse local plants threatens their habitat. River-ponics is helping to bring it back.

Straight from Urban Rivers website, here’s a list of species that have been observed using the gardens:

  • Fish – bluegill, largemouth bass, common carp, tadpole madtoms, spotfin shiners
  • Birds – mallard ducks, wood ducks, cormorants, great blue herons, Canadian geese, American coots, English Sparrows
  • Invertebrates – monarch butterflies, small white butterflies, dragonflies, damselfies, bumble bees, honey bees, ladybugs

More amphibians and mammals are expected to join the party with some time.

Here in Chicago we often think of our city’s primary postcard op as the lakefront. Lake Michigan is beautiful, but there’s also a 156 mile waterway snaking through downtown and playing a big part in the health of local ecosystems. If it were cleaner, we could not only fish in it (some folks do) but eat our catch! Small mouth bass and the aforementioned catfish could be a dinner item instead of one infested with pollutants. Matt thinks that the issue is one of framing: we may think of Lake Michigan as part of our public space, but we may not think of the river that way. Perhaps if we did think of it as a place to recreate and get food from, we could treat it entirely with more care on both an individual basis (no bottles thrown in!) and a municipal one. Water is integral to our way of life in Chicago, it’s even a part of our flag.

Friends of The Chicago River (FOCR), an organization dedicated to the Chicago River’s welfare has been supporting major changes along the riverbend. For one FOCR has taken species diversity from just 10 to 70 over its tenure—and there’s no shortcuts when it comes to sustainable habitat restoration. More specifically, its dropping in of 195,000 juvenile catfish to improve ecosystem health was a big project and should have longterm positive effects. According to FOCR’s website, Senior Wildlife Biologist Chris Anchor reported that otters are making a comeback. Verbatim from their news section: “He sighted one on South Branch, [has] seen evidence behind the Lyric Opera, and monitored a male that spent a winter in a FPCC pond and then swam up the Cal-Sag to the Des Plaines River where he met some females near River Trails Nature Center in Northbrook traveling more than 40 miles by water,” it says. The same post cites that Anchor felt concerned the water quality in the river system was not good enough for otters, so was excited to see otters occupying it—a clear signal that things are improving.

Additionally, the city has sanctioned a pilot trash skimmer near the State Street bridge to tidy up oil spills and other litter. The 4 by 6 foot skimmer catches solid debris, which will then be dried and documented so the city will have data on what kinds of things are ending up in the trash. We hope the pilot program is successful—the city purchased the skimmer for 11,000 dollars, which sounds pricey, but when you think about the 18.2 billion gallons of pollution that flowed into the river in 2016, no price tag seems too high. There are also trash skimmer boats by Elastec, which use a myriad of methods to scoop up everything from discarded plastic bottles to odds and ends that shouldn’t be in the river. If you’ve got a chance, read about how Elastec developed their trash skimmer boats—it’s a fun and informative read that describes how their role in cleaning up water ways started with a simple bucket.

Beyond our involvement with the floating gardens and visualizing a cleaner, greener kayak park, we’ve been writing about simple water conservation tips for years, as well as incorporating them into our designs. We promote permeable surfaces to absorb water during a rainstorm to cut down on the water in the sewers in the form of green roof programs, permeable pavements in alleys and bioswales. Planting and maintaining street and yard trees helps absorb water as well (and we’re big advocates of native plants, for even more conservation.) We have also written about the benefits of using a composting toilet, as well as the benefits of a greywater system. And don’t forget about low flow fixtures! We also encourage clients looking for a bathroom remodel to consider if they truly need or want a bathtub and if a slick shower stall might not meet all their needs instead. Rain barrels are another great tactic for water conservation; water collected during a rainstorm can be used to water plants instead of using crystal clear hose or sink water.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, think of heavy rain storms as a cue to start acting like you’re in a drought. Waiting until you do water intensive things like running the dishwasher, spinning that load of laundry, or even taking a hot shower till after the storm is over can all impact the amount of water headed towards the sewer system during a precipitation event. It may seem small, but if we all contribute, it’s far more likely that sewer treatment plants will be able to catch up with the influx of water from a rainstorm before it overflows, preventing untreated water from entering our river system. You can learn more about Overflow Action Days here.

Another easy tip? Use the river early and often. Showing the city that we enjoy kayaking, riverwalking and observing wildlife will let them know that the river is important to us all and we should continue to fund its improvement and revitalization. Visit the floating gardens behind Whole Foods, take a selfie with an American Coot duck in the background and show the river some love! To get even more motivated, check out the ambitious river plan at Great Rivers Chicago to fully rid the river of all litter and odor by 2040. Every little bit helps.